Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Beat Reflections

by Levi Asher on Monday, December 6, 2010 10:31 pm

It's almost 2011, and the Beat Generation is as hot a topic as ever. Especially when it comes to new movies. Here's the rundown:

1. Way back in 1952, long before Howl, long before On The Road, the phrase "Beat Generation" appeared for the first time in a New York Times Magazine Article by an up-and-coming New York City writer, John Clellon Holmes. Holmes, a good friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and a founding member of the original Beat circle in New York City, also wrote several novels that were respectably reviewed. But he lacked the charisma and theatricality of the later Beat writers, and struggled for literary success even as his friends reached explosive levels of fame.

It's only because of these legendary friends, and not because of his own fiction, that John Clellon Holmes merits an extensive literary biography by Ann and Samuel Charters today. Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation is unusual among literary biographies because its hero never had a breakout success. Instead, he filled out his career with dead end manuscripts, odd magazine assignments and college teaching jobs. In this sense, Brother-Souls is actually a more accurate glimpse of how most writers live than any typical biography of a famous writer. Still, mostly due to Ann and Sam Charters' obvious affection for their subject (who was their close friend), a poignant and meaningful storyline emerges. The most surprising chapters take place during the 1960s, when Holmes and his wife Shirley attempt to find their own inroads into the swinging counterculture by experimenting earnestly (and at a very intellectual level) with free love and group sex. These experiments failed more often than not, sometimes leaving deep psychic wounds behind, and the chronicles of these failures (which Holmes himself later tried to publish a book about) provide a new angle -- an Updikeean angle, surprisingly enough -- on the famous legend of the Beats. Brother-Souls, though clearly a labor of love by the Charters team, is a nice addition to their body of work (Ann Charters wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac, many decades ago).

Bookshop Memories: The Liberty Lobby

by Alan Bisbort on Wednesday, December 1, 2010 07:30 am

(Another installment of Alan Bisbort's bookselling memoir.)

Because our bookshop was located within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol’s snow-white dome, we still retained some guilt by association with the political world. You had to walk to the corner and then look eight blocks west to see the dome, but nonetheless its magical aura enfolded us too. As tempting as it may have been, we could not bury our heads in the sands, burrow deeper inside our antiquarian world and hope to stay in business. This was simply not possible in Washington, D.C., at least not in the middle of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution.

Though politics and civics were two of the shop’s weaker subject areas, we were occasionally visited by politicos and lobbyists brave or absent-minded enough to venture into the less-traveled (and more feared) zones of the District of Columbia. Often, they were on their lunch breaks and, having wandered a street or two too far, stumbled onto the shop by accident. Most of these visitors had not, previously, known we existed. And few of them ever returned.

Among this group of political animals, one critter stood out. He was a resident expert—perhaps the resident expert—at the Liberty Lobby, a far-right-wing organization about which I knew little beyond what this fellow suggested it must be like.

His name was John Tiffany, and he was, despite the name, neither delicate nor colorful, nor was he in any way illuminating. He always seemed to be wearing the same flannel shirt. He sported a sort of whisk-broom moustache that he must have fancied was manly—an antidote, no doubt, to all the feminists and lesbians who held court hereabouts and made men like John Tiffany nervous. He was one of the few people I had ever seen who employed a pocket protector, inside which were housed the tools of his trade as a writer of political and historical spin. And he was tongue-tied, floor-gazing, completely at a loss in any one-on-one human encounter.

Philosophy Weekend: Kim Jong-Il and the Loony Way Out

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 27, 2010 01:17 am

This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."

This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.

We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.

Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).

Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.

The Sea of Possibilities

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:35 pm

1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.

2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)

Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:

3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.

Philosophy Weekend: Specters of Socialism

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 29, 2010 11:18 pm

As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.

Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.

This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).

Upski's Back: Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 25, 2010 08:34 pm

Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.

But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:

I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.

Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --


Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.

Philosophy Weekend: Outside of Society

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 23, 2010 08:20 pm

"Outside of society!" shouts Patti Smith in one of her best songs, Rock and Roll Nigger. The phrase expresses not a reality but rather only a dream for many of us. For a small few, it's an actual choice.

I've never lived off the grid, but I've always been drawn to the idea. The impulse to withdraw from modern suburbia and reinvent society in capsule form has a long intellectual history; it was a driving force of the French Enlightenment, New England Transcendentalism (Louisa May Alcott spent part of her childhood in her father's commune) and the 1960s hippie revolution. During that golden age, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters lived in a cabin in Palo Alto, Timothy Leary held court at Millbrook, New York, while Allen Ginsberg's poetic entourage gathered around Cherry Valley, New York. But Charlie Manson was also building his own society at Spahn Movie Ranch outside of Los Angeles during these years. Many of the most well-known off-the-grid communes since the end of the 1960s have similarly been disaster stories: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, the lonely Unabomber in his Lincoln, Montana cabin.

Some of the original hippie communes, though, did not fail, and managed to evolve. My older and younger sisters both experimented with communal societies at different points in their lives, and I once visited my younger sister for a weekend while she lived on the edge -- half in, half out -- of a rural commune in northwestern Vermont that sustained about 75 regulars and many more visitors. The informal commune -- people lived in separate shacks, but spent their days together -- had existed quietly and successfully for years. I hope it's still there.

Pondering Proust VII: Time Regained

by Michael Norris on Monday, October 18, 2010 05:22 pm

(Our illustrated study of Proust nears its conclusion ...)

"This is the best part of the trip, this is the trip, the best part" -- Jim Morrison, “The Soft Parade”

The final volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Time Regained, opens with a visit M. pays to newlyweds Gilberte and Robert de Saint-Loup at Tansonville, their estate in Combray. He takes long walks around the village with Gilberte, following the same paths that he took as a boy. Although Combray has remained unchanged, he is unable to recapture the pleasures of his childhood strolls. Then Gilberte astounds him by telling him that he can get to the Guermantes’ manor by taking the route that passes Méséglise – Swann’s way. M. has always believed the Guermantes way and Swann’s way to be irreconcilable; now he finds they are connected. His world is about to change, and many of his boyhood assumptions will be shattered.

M.’s interlude at Combray is brief. During his stay, Saint-Loup is away most of the time, ostensibly on business, but actually pursuing Morel; Gilberte makes herself up to look like Robert’s old mistress Rachel, in an attempt to win him back; and M. bemoans his lack of talent for literature. There is then a gap of several years, which M. spends in a sanatorium for his health. The story picks up again in Paris during World War I.

Howl: The Movie

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 4, 2010 08:19 pm

I caught the new film Howl, about Allen Ginsberg's great Beat Generation poem. I thought it was very good.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman have crafted a surprisingly accessible and engaging story out of three narrative threads: how Allen Ginsberg wrote this poem, how Lawrence Ferlinghetti nearly went to jail for publishing it, and what the words mean. James Franco, clearly tuned in to Ginsberg's wavelength, skillfully re-enacts the poem's famous debut at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the courtroom scenes that follow (with, predictably, Bob Balaban as the judge) are moving and suspenseful but also blissfully accurate and free of histrionics.

At least one person I know hated the vivid Eric Drooker animations that illustrate the poem's words, but I thought they were fine (though Ralph Bakshi would have been an edgier choice). I can't complain about James Franco's well-informed impersonation of Allen Ginsberg, though having met and talked to Ginsberg a few times (I tell the story here) I don't think Franco gets it completely right. He's just a little too cool and relaxed for the deeply froggy, proto-nerdy Allen Ginsberg. Unlike Franco's smooth operator, Allen Ginsberg was always hip, but he was never cool.

Philosophy Weekend: The Philosophy of the Tea Party

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 26, 2010 10:25 am

Since it's our mission here to discuss popular (rather than academic) philosophy, we can hardly ignore the emergence in the last two years of the Tea Party, a raucous and highly ideological political protest movement that has grown powerful among conservative and/or Republican American voters, and aims to transform the nation.

As a proud liberal, I disagree with almost everything in the Tea Party's loosely defined platform. But I try to always treat my opponents with respect and empathy, and I am disappointed that so many of my fellow liberals have been reacting to the emergence of this grassroots movement by trying to wish it away, and by emphasizing its worst evident characteristics over its better ones.

It's not hard to find noisy Tea Party protestors expressing racist hatred towards President Barack Obama, or saying disturbingly uneducated things about Islam, or carrying signs that cry out for spell-check. It's also not hard to find fault with heroes of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, and to claim that their obvious flaws -- Sarah Palin's glib overconfidence, Glenn Beck's rabid rage, Christine O'Donnell's hilarious weirdness -- represent the flaws of the movement at large.

But, as always in a principled argument, we'll all benefit more by analyzing this movement according to its best rather than worst characteristics, thus allowing its opposition (which I'm a part of) the chance to win in a fair fight. The Tea Party phenomenon is admirably idealistic and philosophical at its core, and I've spent some time trying to discern (by reading blogs, reading newspapers, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News) the basic intellectual principles behind the Tea Party movement.


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